I was 17 when the 90s began; 27 when they ended. I remember the decade pretty clearly as a result. Looking back, if I was asked for the two defining pop cultural moments of that ten year stretch, I would nominate the death of Kurt Cobain on April 5, 1994 and the airing of the final episode of “Seinfeld” on May 14, 1998. Both moments of devastation, delivered in springtime.
It is easy to forget now how huge a show like “Seinfeld” really was by any modern metric. That ultimate episode of the sitcom was watched live by 76.3 million people in the United States alone – an impossible number to imagine these days for anything outside of a sporting contest. While talking about an instalment of a TV show as one of the definitive pop cultural moments of an entire decade seems weird from a 2017 vantage point, it is worth bearing in mind that “Seinfeld” was the top rated show in America across a generous portion of that ten year period, in a way that would be unthinkable now.
I recently sat through every episode of “Seinfeld”, in order, once again, seeing most of the episodes for the first time since the 90s. And I can say that every single one of them was great – except, of course, for that infamous final episode. It was, unfortunately, just as awful as I had remembered it.
One of the things I found remarkable about watching “Seinfeld” again was how few of the central plot conundrums of any given episode felt dated. Given most of the shows are over twenty years old now and the series’ USP was awkward social problems, this is pretty amazing. Of course, there are dated elements of the programme (let’s just say, we’ve come a long way on mental health issues since the 1990s), but rarely do the plots feel affected by this. Which is why the finale jumps out at you in this regard: Elaine has a problem in that she has given a friend who is in the hospital a call from her mobile phone, which Jerry and George inform us is the lowest form of call and that she has to call friend on a landline asap. In an age where no one has a landline anymore, this is easily the most dated problem anyone on “Seinfeld” ever encounters.
To be honest, this is the worst element of the first ten minutes or so of the show, which proceeds like a fairly normal episode of “Seinfeld” for a bit. Then, out of the blue, Jerry gets a call from NBC: they want to pick up the “Jerry” show again. This leads to a terrible plot twist, the worst and least believable one in the entire series: Jerry is given a private jet by the network and allowed to go anywhere he wants with it. Given most of season 4 was based on NBC dicking them around, screwing them down for money, cancelling the show several times, the fact that suddenly there is a private jet available seems to cut against the show’s own history badly – this will be the theme of the finale from here on in.
The foursome decide to go to Paris. Kramer almost crashes the jet and they land in a small town in Massachusetts. Once there, we witness the most jarring scene in “Seinfeld” history: a man is robbed in broad daylight and the Seinfeld four laugh at the victim and even video tape the assault for amusement. This, again, cuts across the characters they have spend nine seasons creating. Maybe Jerry, as in the Jerry character Jerry Seinfeld plays on the programme, if he were alone, would walk on by, maybe even have a chuckle at such a thing afterwards – but the rest of them would never do anything like this. Kramer is defined as a character by his weird, off kilter heroics; his need to get involved in the minutiae of such events. It is hard to see him not having intervened in an assault he was witness to, never mind standing around mocking the victim. George Costanza is a man plagued by guilt over just this sort of thing. One can easily imagine him not getting involved due to cowardice – but the idea that he would stand there and crack jokes about it is way out of character. Elaine could be callous but usually about something she felt she had some social cover for – she was always keen to seem caring and thoughtful, even though she often wasn’t, so again, laughing at an assault would never be her style; it’s too obvious a social faux pas. All this sets us on the road to the horrific denouement.
The four are arrested under the “good Samaritan” law, which states that things like laughing at people as they are being assaulted is subject to the criminal code. They are put on trial and, ridiculously, a whole assortment of characters seen throughout the show’s history appear as character witnesses. Babu is flown in from Pakistan; how large is the budget of this small town criminal justice system exactly? The point of this all is a gigantic “fuck you” to the viewing audience: these four people who comprised the show’s main cast are all awful human beings, this episode says, how could you ever like them? How bad are you for having related to them? It takes the central premise of the show, that the sorts of social situations faced by the cast members were ones a lot of people had to deal with but that were often too embarrassing to talk about, and stomps all over it. It is like a puritanical mother charging in at the end of comedy to tell you off for having enjoyed something so indecent.
Yes, twenty years on, the final episode of “Seinfeld” remains one of the worst television products ever produced. Given this is a medium that coughed up “Full House”, that is no mean feat.